ICUN, the worldwide conservation organization and taxonomy leader recognises only two subspecies and they are the African lion and the Asiatic lion. Because it does not have one subspecies identifier, the African lion subspecies is frequently referred to by the species name Panthera leo, but meaning “excluding the Asiatic lion”. However, in relatively recent years, researchers have proposed classifying the African lions into a number of subspecies for African lions based on their geographic region and many groups are now using a number of these subspecies despite the ongoing debate. Many zoos around the world are also separating out their lions by subspecies in their reporting to the ISIS organization that counts captive animals. The taxonomy is not consistently applied for ISIS and most zoos just use Panthera Leo without a subspecies (African or Asiatic) when they report their counts. This makes it difficult to get an accurate population split between African and Asiatic. As with other species, such as tiger, we can surely count on future research to reveal new scientific discoveries for future editions of the Zookeepers Journal. The African subspecies classifications, currently under scientific debate, has recognized six African subspecies.
Asiatic Lion in History
There was time when lions were present even in the Europe. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote about the lions being found in the Balkans. According to the historical records when the Persian King Xerxes advanced through Macedon in 480 BC, several of his baggage camels were killed by lions. These cats are believed to have died out within the borders of present-day Greece around AD 80-100. The Nemean Lion from Greek Mythology is widely associated with depictions of Heraklis/Hercules in Greek Mythological art.
The European population is sometimes considered part of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) group, but there are other specialists who believe that they were a separate subspecies, may be the European lion (Panthera leo europaea) or a last remnant of the Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea).
Scythian art from Ukraine (4th century BC), depicts Scythians hunting very realistically portrayed lions. These cats survived in the Caucasus region until the 10th century. This was the northernmost population of lions and the only place in the former Soviet Union’s territory that lions lived in historic times. These lions became extinct in Armenia around the year 100 and in Azerbaijan and southwest Russia during the 10th century. The principal reasons for their disappearance was their extermination as predators. The prey for large cats in the region included the elk, wisent, aurochs, deer, tarpan and other ungulates.
These predators remained widespread elsewhere until the mid-19th century when the advent of firearms led to their extinction over large areas. The last sighting of a live Asiatic Lion in Iran was in 1941 (between Shiraz and Jahrom, Fars province). In 1944, the corpse of a lioness was found on the banks of Karun river, Khuzestan province, Iran. There are no subsequent reliable reports from Iran. By the late 19th century the lion had disappeared from Turkey.
Their historic range is believed to have extended from Northern India in the east through modern Iran, south throughout the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula and west towards modern Greece and Italy. Indeed, multiple fossil localities of the related subspecies Panthera leo spelaea have been discovered throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Siberia, Alaska and much of Europe going as far north as Scotland.
India the last refuge
The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) also known as the Indian lion, Persian lion and Eurasian Lion is a subspecies of lion. The only place in the world where this lion is found today is in the Gir Forest of Gujarat (India), situated in a tiny corner of the Saurashtra peninsula which was their home for most of the 20th century. Now, slowly but surely, they are reclaiming their larger kingdom. According to H.S. Singh, Gujarat’s additional principal chief conservator of forests, “In 1800, lions were found in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi (they are states in western, central and northern parts of modern India). In 1857, 200-odd lions were hunted in Delhi and nearby areas. The Gir National Park and surrounding area can accommodate only around 300 lions, forcing others to move out.”
With the number of lions increasing in Gir the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh wants some of them to be relocated to its Kuno Palpur sanctuary. Conservationists are too in the favor of this. But the government of Gujrat does not want to part with the wild cats as it is the only place in the world where these lions are found. While the state government is looking after its interests lions have found out the solution on their own. Cramped for space, they have themselves decided to wander around and park themselves wherever they wish.
As many as 114 lions have moved away outside the protected area and spread out into other areas of Amreli, Bhavnagar and Junagadh districts. The length of this kingdom, spread across southern Saurashtra, is a whopping 200 km as the crow flies. Having learnt to live close to friendly human habitations, the lion is moving even out of the forest corridors, feeding largely on domestic cattle in villages which had never seen lions before.
Decimation of Lions
Till 19th century, tigers remained comparatively safe because the Mughal Emperors had glamorized lion hunting as “The Sport of Kings”. The feudal chieftains of India, the functionaries of the East India Company and later of the Crown were quick to ape the Mughals. As a result by 1890, it was believed that there were no more than 25 Asiatic lions left in India.
Even during the early 20th century conflicts between man and lion were not common, as thought to be as the forests had ample prey base. However, till 1870s bounties were offered on killing of lions. In 1880s an unofficial (without the Nawab’s consent) ban was imposed on lion killings to develop the area as Nawab’s own game reserve. Despite this hunting could not be stopped entirely and by mid 1880s lion population came down few dozens.
It was in 1890, when Duke of Clarence visited the place, Nawab realised that the Asiatic lion has reached the stage of extinction. Even when Lord Curzon visited Gir in November 1900 for hunting he also realized the urgent need for the conservation of lions and decided to restrain himself from hunting. He also felt that his restraint would certainly create an example for other trophy-hunters. Consequently, he asked the Nawab to take all necessary measures for the lion conservation. He wrote the following letter to Burma Game Preservation Association—
“The cause of diminution of wild fauna in India are the steady increase of population, the winding area of cultivation and the improvement in the means of communication—all of them sequel of what is popularly termed progress of civilization. There are some persons who doubt or dispute the progressive diminution of wildlife in India. I think that they are wrong. The facts seem to me to point entirely in the opposite direction. Up to the time of the mutiny, lions were shot in central India. They are now confined into an ever-narrowing patch of forest in Kathiawar. I was on the verge of contributing to their still further reduction a year ago (1900) myself but fortunately I found our mistake in time, and was able to adopt a restrain, which I hope that others will follow. Except in native states, the terrain and forest reserves, tigers are undoubtedly diminishing. This is perhaps not an unmixed evil… The preservation of fauna and flora is more important than the preservation of any of the great monuments, which after all were fashioned by man and can be recreated at a price. The present generation owes it to its successors to restore the only species of a large mammal lost in the plains of India in historic times. Failure to do so would not be forgiven by the judgement of history.”
It is believed that this was probably the first step in the direction of conservation by the government in the British Raj in India. Some people are of the view that Lord Curzon was deliberately not taken to the area where the lions were plentiful, probably because to save the lions from being hunted down on the first place and secondly the areas were inaccessible. It is said that it was planned by Nawab himself and only the handful of people knew about the actual facts. It is said that the number of lions was not so low when Curzon visited the area.
This is evident from the fact that the Nawab had already started the efforts for conservation of lions. On 10 May 1879 a notification on behalf of the Nawab Mahabat Khan II was issued clearly communicating to the people, Indians and Europeans both, to refrain from lion hunting. Following is the text.—
“At the request of His Highness the Nawab of Junagarh, it is notified for public information that an interdict has been issued by His Highness against the destruction of lions in the Gir forest. As this order has emanated from a request preferred by His Excellency the Governor of Bombay who fears that the race may forever become extinct in nature, unless means are taken for their preservation, it is hoped by the undersigned that it will be respected by European sportsmen.”
In 1880, a survey of lion population was done by Col. Watson and the number was found to be only 12. The exercise undertaken was based on the personal knowledge and experience of the local people and this was perhaps the first lion census ever conducted.
Due to the Nawab’s efforts the population of lions reached to 287 by 1936, and the number kept fluctuating until steady growth from 1979 onwards, by which time the population had dipped to 205.
Lion Population : 27% increase in five years
The number of Asiatic lions in Gujarat’s Gir forests, covering about 22,000 km² area with scrub and open deciduous forests, has gone up to 523, an increase of 27 per cent since 2010, when the last census showed the count at 411.
Releasing the numbers at Sasan Gir on 10 May 2015, Chief Minister Anandiben Patel attributed the increase to persistent conservation efforts of the State Forest Department hand in hand with wildlife enthusiasts and local population.
Out of the 523, 109 are males, 201 females and 213 are cubs. The number of lions has grown steadily over the years from 180 recorded in the 1974 census, to 359 in 2005, 411 in 2010, and 523 this year.
This time, the count covered 1,500 villages of eight districts in the Saurashtra region, against two districts which were covered in 2010. While the maximum number of lions was spotted in Junagadh (268), the highest increase was registered in Amreli district (174) lions. Besides this, 44 lions were spotted in Gir Somnath and 37 in Bhavnagar district.
“The lion is basically reclaiming its territory in newer areas and hence is venturing out. This census was significant to know the number of lions in regions outside the protected areas and on the basis of this future conservation strategies will be charted out,” Chief Conservator of Forests, Wildlife, Junagadh, Anirudh Pratap Singh said.
Officials claim the population has grown because of improved breeding base. “Factors like rescue, habitat improvement, water management, man-animal conflict mitigation and creating awareness have contributed to increased numbers,” according to Sandeep Kumar, DCF, Wildlife, Gir sanctuary.
Forest officials described the 2015 census as the most scientifically driven, since it was conducted with state-of-the-art gadgets, including global positioning systems (GPS), camera traps, digital cameras and computer tabs.
This was to discount possibility of repeat counts as well as to get the new location of the lions outside the sanctuary and the protected areas (PAs). Around 2,200 officials, forest guards, wildlife experts and volunteers were deployed in the week-long survey.
During British rule lions were hunted indiscriminately by the white officers and the members of Indian royalty in the name of sport. Result was by 1908, population of these majestic cats was reduced to just about 13 individuals when the Nawab of Junagadh gave them complete protection. This figure, however, is highly controversial because the first census in the Gir was conducted in 1936 and it showed presence of 234 animals. The first census after India became independent (year 1947) was conducted in 1968 and it put the population at 177 lions, all of whom were within the protected zone of Gir sanctuary and national park.
Until about 150 to 200 years ago, Bengal tiger and Indian leopard, shared most of the habitat, where Asiatic lions were found in large parts of west and central India along with the Asiatic cheetahs, now extinct in India. However, Asiatic cheetahs preferred open grasslands, and the Asiatic lions preferred open forests interspersed with grasslands, which is also home to tigers and leopards. At one time, the Bengal tiger and Asiatic lion might have competed with each other for food and territory.
Today Asiatic lion is one of the five major big cats found in India, others being Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard. Historically, Asiatic lions were classified into three kinds – Bengal, Arabian and Persian lions. They are smaller and lighter than their African counterparts, but are equally aggressive. They have a bushier coat, shorter manes that expose their ears, longer elbow and tail tufts, and a longitudinal skin folds on their stomachs.
YEAR POPULATION YEAR POPULATION
2010 ——————– 411 2015 ——————- 523
2001 ——————— 327 2005 ——————– 359
1990 ——————— 284 1995 ——————— 304
1979 ——————— 205 1985 ——————— 239
1968 ——————– 177 1974 ——————– 180
1908 ——————– 13 1936 ——————— 234
Lion attacks and man-eating
The Gir protected area, where men and beasts have lived peacefully for centuries, has witnessed a disturbing trend this year (2016). Over the last 23 years there have been only 18 instances of lions killing humans in the Gir and its adjoining areas, but the alarm bell started ringing this year when six incidents were reported in the first five months alone. Three killings — a 4-year-old boy, a woman aged around 50 and a 61-year-old man — were mauled to death by the felines in April and May.
Following the incidents, for the first time in the Gir’s long history, a pride of 17 lions was caged. During a 25-day captivity of these lions and analysis of their pugmarks and faeces it was found that three lions ate human flesh. They include an adult lion and two lionesses. “It brought us to the conclusion that the male lion attacked, killed and ate humans while two other sub-adults only ate some leftover body parts. These sub-adults were not involved in attacking and killing humans,” said AP Singh, chief conservator of forest for Junagadh division.
Now the male lion will be kept in a cage at Sakkarbaug zoo on the outskirts of Junagadh and the two lionesses will be kept locked a forest department rescue centre. Precautions are necessary because once an animal turns a “man-eater”, it is prone to prey on humans as the hunt is often easier, officials said. Other 14 lions will be released into the national park.
— 310 Asiatic Lions died in Gir in the past five years (2011-2015) :- Forest Minister Mangubhai Patel informed the state Assembly in a reply to a question by a member. He, however, claimed that only 25 of them died unnaturally; 10 perished in unprecedented heavy floods in parts of Amreli and Bhavnagar districts last year (2015).
Other causes for unnatural deaths included falling in open wells, electrocution caused by electrified barbed wire, fencing by farmers to protect their agricultural produces from wild animals and accidents on the railway tracks passing through the sanctuary. The road accidents on the highways passing through the forest also accounted for a few unnatural deaths, he said.
— 250 lions dead over past 5 years (2009-2013) in Gujarat :- The Gir wildlife sanctuary witnessed about 250 deaths of lions in the last five years (2009-2013). In 2012-13, there were 48 deaths, which increased to 53 in 2013-14. In the first three months, approximately 20 lions died, including eight in accidents. Of these eight, six were run over by trains.
Experts feel that the increase in number of such cases is mainly in the category of unnatural death. This includes electrocution or falling in wells. Officials said that the death of 20-odd lions — over 40 per cent — were because of unnatural deaths in the state.
Forest officials said “The death of 50-odd lions in the area is totally normal as the figures include that of the new born cubs where the survival rate was only 50%. Earlier, the maximum of two cubs were born to a lioness, but now the number has increased and it is on an average three to four cubs and hence the deaths are also more.”
“There are high turnover rates (20%) in high density tiger populations that is lots of individual can die if lots are present. As long as the population shows a positive growth, individual deaths are not a cause of worry for the conservation of a species that has numbers over 150 individuals. Besides only deaths of prime age lions are of concern, in cubs 50% mortality is to be expected. Old lions will die by one cause or other, so when we have over 400 lions large number of deaths is expected, outside of forests most lion deaths get detected and reported.
Therefore, unless population shows a decline (estimated by a rigorous scientific method) individual deaths are not a cause of worry,” said Yadvendradev Jhala, a scientist with Wildlife Institute of India and a researcher on big cats.
— 139 Asiatic lions including 54 cubs perished in three years (2009-2011) :- Of these 42 were males and 43 females. This information was tabled in the state assembly in a written reply to a question. It said that about 42 animals died in 2009, followed by 48 in 2010 and 49 in 2011.
The government has said the deaths were owing to natural causes. Though, in one or two cases it was due to falling of big cats in wells. Other reasons include cannibalism and in fights, and one incident of electrocution. The state government further said in the past three years there has been no incident of poaching.
The annual number of deaths among adult lions remained constant, from 27 to 31. However the number of death of cubs has been increasing. In 2009, 15 cubs had died while the next year it was17 and in 2011 it was 22.
Experts say 10-15 per cent death of the total population is normal. Officials say in the total population of 411, death of 41-50 odd lions is considered to be a normal and a healthy sign. Additional chief principal conservator of forest H.S. Singh says in a normal case about 10-15 per cent big cats die every year and there is an annual recruitment of 80-90 cubs.
He said in Africa the survival rate among the cubs was just 23-24 per cent. Of the 100 cubs born, only 23 cross the age of two. However, the number was much higher in Gujarat.
Cub club in Gir
According to an estimate of January 2013 Gir sanctuary and its surrounding areas have more than one-third cubs of the total lions and all are believed to be less than three years old. Of these, 50% have not even crossed the one year mark. Experts and foresters say it will help in conserving the Asiatic lion that has come back from the edge of extinction.
The first census conducted by the Gujarat government in 1964 had shown that the numbers of lions had dropped to precarious depths at just 177. It is estimated that every year, some 70 cubs are born, but only 56% live to see the third year of their lives. At present, 37 per cent of the population is below three years.
This number, however, is way better when compared to African lions. The website of the Kalahari Predator Conservation Trust, quoting International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), states that takeover by other males, food shortage and negligence results in only 20 per cent of cubs living to experience more than two years of their lives. Approximately 27% of all cubs die from the hierarchical invasion by other males.
H.S. Singh, additional principal conservator of forests, says “In Gir, the territorial battles seem to be happening at an older age, which has reduced the cannibalism and improved the survival rate of cubs.” Not only within the sanctuary, young cubs are found elsewhere as well. Although they seem to be doing much better in Gir East and Gir West areas within the sanctuary. The wild cats had started moving out of the sanctuary about a decade ago. Today, they are found in substantial numbers in regions like Amreli and Bhavnagar outside the sanctuary, but the number of cubs is comparatively less here.
A study by V. Meena of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), called ‘Reproductive Strategy and Behaviour of Male Asiatic Lions‘, revealed that the survival rate of the cub was the lowest in the first year of birth. Cub survival depends on factors like infanticide (which results in death of 60% cubs), abandonment (13%) and other natural causes (26%).
Yadvendradev Jhala, research associate at WII says, “Thirty-seven per cent cubs in the wild is a very high number. The forest department should not make efforts to save all these newborns as it would mean interfering in the natural process in which the bad genes die and the best survive.”
100 cubs turn Gir into a roaring success
About 100 lion cubs have been sighted in the Gir wildlife sanctuary and surrounding areas in September-October 2013, say a report published in The Times of India on 10 Oct. 2013. Gujrat’s forest officials see it as a stamp of approval of their conservation efforts.
Gir sees about 80 to 85 new cubs every year. Studies, however, show that only 56% live to see the third year of their lives. Their first year is the most crucial. This is the first time foresters have seen a substantial jump in cub count, which means more lions are likely to cross that 12-month threshold.
“We have seen an increase in the number of cubs with each passing year. It is possible only because of the cooperation the forest department gets from villagers and patrolling staff. People immediately inform us if they see an injured cub in the area. This helps reduce mortality,” said Gujarat principal chief conservator of forests CN Pandey.
Added deputy conservator of forests Sandeep Kumar, “The chances of visitors sighting the cubs have increased as many of the little ones are in the tourist zone of the forest.”
In 2008, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had removed Gir lions from the critically endangered list and put them in the comparatively healthier endangered list.
Size and Behaviour
Asiatic lions are similar to their African cousins, though they have less swollen tympanic bullae, shorter postorbital constriction, and usually have divided infraorbital foramen. The colour ranges from reddish-brown to a highly mottled black to sandy cinnamon grey.
Their size corresponds to that of central African lions. In adult males, the maximum skull length is 330–340 mm, while that of females is 266–277 mm. They reach a weight of 160–190 kg. (n=4) for the males and 110–120 kg. (n=2) for the females. The scientific record for the longest male is of 292 cm, while the maximum height to the shoulders reported is of 107 cm. Captain Smee hunted a male which was 268 cm long and weighed 222.3 kg, excluding the entrails. The largest known wild male, in the hunting records, was exactly 3 m (9.9 ft) in length.
Like African lions, Asiatic lions too are quite social and live in prides, but their prides are smaller than those of African ones, with an average of only two females, whereas an African pride has an average of four to six. Asiatic males are less social in the sense that they associate with the pride only while mating or on a large kill. It has been suggested that this may be because their prey animals are smaller than those in Africa, requiring fewer hunters to tackle them. Asiatic lions prey predominantly on deer (chital and sambar), wild boar, water buffalo, antelope (nilgai), gazelle (chinkara) and of course livestock.
Behavioural change in Gir lions
Three sub-adult lions dethroned the kings
Three sub-adult lions in the Gir sanctuary, in the Indian state of Gujrat, have carried out a coup in the jungle and have dethroned their rulers. These sub-adults — aged between three and four years — have conquered a huge territory right in the middle of the tourist zone.
The three, all kids of the same father but of different lionesses, ganged up against a couple of 10-year-old lions, vanquished them and drove them out of their territory. Now the trio rules over four groups of lions consisting of six lionesses and several cubs. Giving the information about the new development on 17 December 2014, Sandeep Kumar, the deputy conservator of forests, who is keeping a watch on proceedings along with field officials, says that the new rulers are moving in on other prides as well.
“The behavioral change in Asiatic lions related to the optimization of male reproductive period, association among males, enhanced physical and reproductive fitness, and better survival rate are all manifestations of broad genetic base,” Kumar says. “The three took over the territory from lions which were strong enough. Two of the three lions had first made an attempt to attack the older kings.” But when they found the two adult males to be tough opponents, the third sub-adult was brought in as reinforcement. The three now share six lionesses for mating. Usually a lion is ready for mating at the age of three but the first mating takes place only after a territory is conquered.
“Gir forest earlier had one lion capturing territory, but later the social fabric changed and with the male population growing, two lions began capturing territories and even sharing lionesses for mating,” Kumar says. He said that three lions taking over a pride at a very young age represented a rare wildlife event.
H S Singh, a member of the national board of wildlife and a former IFS officer, says: “Usually lions capture territory at the age of five and it is normally two sub-adults who become kings. I would say that this new capture is abnormal behavior as these lions have captured territory despite their age.”
Lionesses are ‘kings’ in Gir
Unlike its counterpart in Africa, the highly protective lioness dominates prides in Gir National Park. “Lionesses are the ‘king’ of Gir. Unlike their African counterparts where male owns the pride, here female own the pride. Through promiscuity and confused paternity, lionesses safeguard their cubs.” says Y V JHALA, senior scientist at Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India.
According to a Wildlife Institute of India study, the lionesses of Gir, unlike those in Africa, allow in their areas only those males who ensure the safety of their cubs. The typical Gir female does not mate for two years or till the cubs start making kills on their own. In Africa, the cubs stay with the mother for a shorter period and safety is ensured by the father. Gir lionesses select their mate; in Africa, it’s the male or a group of males that takeover the pride by defeating the incumbent male.
30,000 is the 2015 estimate of lion population in Africa’s bigger landscape, a drop of 43% since 1991. 8,000 years ago — before Harappan culture existed — lions migrated into Asia from Africa.
King’s banquet has different menu
Asiatic lions in Gir and its periphery are changing their eating habits. It has been found that over the last five decades, lions have increasingly started to feast on wild animals instead of livestock. “Today (2012), about 80 per cent lions have wild animals in their main diet and only 20 per cent feast on cattle,” says deputy conservator of forests Sandeep Kumar.
A study conducted by foreign researcher Paul Joslin in late 1960s had revealed that about 75 per cent of these cats were dependent on livestock, including cattle, while only 25 per cent hunted wild animals.
According to a study by Gujarat’s forest department the ratio has reversed. “Today, about 80 per cent lions have wild animals in their main diet and only 20 per cent feast on cattle,” said deputy conservator of forests Sandeep Kumar.
Even outside the protected sanctuary area, less than 50 per cent of intake is livestock. In coastal areas like Bhavnagar, 63 per cent of lions’ diet is blue bull or neelgais which damage farmers’ crop on large scale. This is the main reason why locals accept maned cats as their neighbor.
This reversal in the trend is mainly attributed to two reasons — a fast-growing prey base in the area and human population, mainly maldharis, pastoral nomadic tribal herdsmen, moving out of jungles. This observable fact is reflected in the number of cattle heads killed by lions inside the sanctuary – from 700-800 in 1970s to just about 200 today.
“The study corroborates the findings of Meena Venktraman, who did her PhD in 2008 on Asiatic lions. The study revealed that 81 per cent of lions in the sanctuary area depend on wild animal for their food while the rest depend on livestock,” said Kumar.
In the eastern parts of Gir, towards Amreli and Bhavnagar, blue bulls are the lion’s most favored diet – nearly 30 per cent – followed closely by cattle that accounts for 28 per cent. In the west, chitals account for 46 per cent of cat’s diet followed by cattle (18 per cent), sambhar (17 per cent) and blue bull (13 per cent).
In Devaliya, foresters have seen a different side of lions. Much like humans, the big cats also seem to prefer varied diets. A family of lioness and her three cubs in the area were found to be having a special liking for male neelgai. This mini-pride has a record of hunting only stout, male neelgai.
An ongoing study by the forest officials and deputy conservator of forest Sandeep Kumar reveals that while some prides prefer to feast on a variety of prey, there are many others that prefer hunting for specific animals. Like this group of Devaliya, there was another group of 13-14 lions in Vekharia in Bhavnagar who preferred only neelgai as their food.
He said the kill pattern of the lions depended on various factors including the size of the pride, the climate, the availability of the prey and the size of their groups found in the area among others.
Kumar said that if the group was big, it would love to have a huge buffalo or a neelgai as its food. But if the group was a small it would kill a chital or sambhar.
He noted that the diet even changed with the season. In winters, the killing of chital for food was 54 per cent, while this reduced to 38 per cent in summer. In monsoon, about 26 per cent of the cattle were killed for food, but during winter it was reduced to 13.5 per cent.
Kumar said that during the monsoon, the sambhar would shift to areas with higher altitudes and hence they would be killed more by leopards — which stay in these higher altitude areas. Lions are not found on very high altitude areas. However, chital killing by lions increased in these seasons, as the chital always stays in flat lands and are an easy target for the big cats. He observed that during monsoon, the killing of cattle also increases. Many farmers leave their cattle alone who stray into the forest area and become prey to lions.
Officials said that the even the movement of the group and their size also play a major role into accounting for the lion diet. In Gir area, one can find large group of chital during winter and hence they fall easy prey to lion. But during summer and monsoon when the group size of chital reduces, the killing of these animals also decreases.
Supreme Court orders translocation of Gir Lions
Supreme Court of India, rejecting Gujrat government’s passionate resistance, ordered on 15 April 2013 that some of the Asiatic lions should be shifted to Kuno wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh (India) so that they can be provided their “second home”. With the translocation of some of the cats to their new home Gujarat will lose its status as the world’s only home for wild Asiatic lions.
For over a decade, efforts are being made to establish another independent population of Asiatic Lions at the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary. Researchers associated with Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had confirmed that the proposed new abode is the most promising location to re-establish a free-ranging population. The Palpur-Kuno was selected as the reintroduction site because it is located in the former range of the lions before they were hunted into extinction in about 1873.
The court asked the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) to take urgent steps for reintroduction of a small number of lions to Kuno from Gir on the ground that the highly-endangered species needed to be dispersed to eliminate the risk of extinction in case of an epidemic outbreak. The order says relocation should be completed within six months under the watch of a multi-member expert body, which will also decide about their numbers.
Responding to Gujarat’s argument that lions should not be moved out of Gujarat, a bench of Justices K S Radhakrishnan and C K Prasad said: “Article 21 (right to life) of the Constitution of India protects not only the human rights but also casts an obligation on human beings” to protect and prevent any species from becoming extinct and conservation and protection of environment was an inseparable part of right to life. Bench further added “No state government, organization or person can claim ownership or possession over wild animals in the forest. Animals in the wild are properties of the nation for which no state can claim ownership and the state’s duty is to protect wildlife and conserve it…”
Agreeing with senior advocate Raj Panjwani, counsel for the petitioner, NGO Centre for Environment Law, the bench said, “The cardinal issue is not whether the Asiatic lion is a ‘family member’ or is part of ‘Indian culture and civilization’, or is ‘the pride of a state’.” The main issue was to see what was in the best interest of the endangered species, it added.
Referring to the problem of human intervention and poaching rendering several species critically endangered, the bench directed the Union government to take necessary steps for preservation of the Bengal Florican, Great Indian Bustard, dugong, Asiatic lion, Manipur Brow-antlered Deer and wild buffalo, and initiate recovery programmes.
While ordering the lion relocation, the court took lessons from a calamitous canine distemper disease outbreak which had wiped out 85% of the lion population in Tanzania’s Serengeti national park in 1994. It said compared to Serengeti, the lion population in Gir was concentrated in a much smaller area and a similar disease could play havoc with the endangered species population. At the same time, the court also praised the Gujarat government’s efforts to protect lions resulting in an increase in their population and habitation area.
Despite the example of Serengeti national park, forest department of Gujrat differs on the probability of outbreak of any disease. It says lions are genetically robust and face no danger from the epidemics since inbreeding is not common. “Their sperm count is very high and its longevity is also excellent. Additionally, a male lion does not mate with its mother, sister cubs or its own daughter. So, genetically they are very healthy,” says Dr. Sandeep Kumar, deputy conservator of forest (wildlife division) at Sasan.
All for Tourism
The reason why Gujarat wants to monopolise Asiatic Lions is just one and that is Tourism. With parting of lions it will not only lose its exclusivity over these cats, it will also face stiff challenge from Madhya Pradesh (MP) in the field of tourism. With lions in its territory MP, which already has plenty of tigers, would have an added tourist attraction. There is very likelihood that it will aggressively promote Kuno Palpur to foreign visitors. Madhya Pradesh attracts approximately 2.7 lakh (.27 million) foreign tourists every year, whereas Gujarat gets 1.60 lakh (.16 million) foreign tourists.
Earlier relocation attempts
Gujrat had contended that translocation of lions in the early 20th century and in 1956, especially to Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), was unsuccessful and therefore the present move would not yield much result. In the inaugural meeting of the Indian Board of Wildlife in Mysore in 1952, it was decided that a small number of lions should be shifted to UP. The state government agreed to develop the Chandraprabha sanctuary, 59 km from the holy city of Varanasi, as the king’s new abode. In 1956, a small pride of three lions — one male and two females — was introduced to sanctuary. Soon the older female gave birth to a cub, which was killed by poachers in 1958. In 1960, the younger lioness gave birth to two cubs and shifted base to adjacent state, Bihar. She returned to Chandraprabha with a single cub, which died in 1962. The same year, the older lioness gave birth to a cub and the younger lioness to two. The pride size increased to seven by 1965, but the project was abandoned the same year as all the lions were either killed by poachers or poisoned by locals.
Terming this is incorrect, the court explained that on previous occasions the lions were hunted because they had become cattle-lifters thereby causing and acute “lion-man conflict” in the introduced area which was no longer the situation.
Quoting a report by the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife, the Bench said there were better scientific inputs this time and a full commitment on the part of MP. Therefore, the present relocation was not comparable with earlier efforts.
Experts’ opinion on second home for Asiatic lions
On the question of shifting of Gir lions to MP, Director of Lion Research Centre at the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences and a renowned ecologist Craig Packer says, “It is important to have a second population to save the last wild Asiatic lions. There could be an unforeseeable ecological catastrophe, disease, typhoon or something else that destroys the habitat.”
Luke Hunter, a globally acknowledged lion-translocation expert and also the president of Panthera, one of the world’s leading wild cat conservation organisation, says that while Gujrat has done a fabulous job of protecting the big cats, the lions might have reached the maximum density that Gir can sustain. He also rubbishes the claims that there is a substantial disease risk while translocation and exposure to a new environment. “Wild lions are relatively amenable to translocation; we have been doing this now in southern Africa for over twenty years with over 500 translocations,” he says. Experts also agree that it is irrational to assume that the cats would be more vulnerable to disease in their new home.
History of lions shows about a century ago these cats were occupying the habitat spread over southern part of Eurasia and almost entire Africa. Today they are restricted to 67 largely isolated areas in Africa and one in India. Experts say this isolation had increased the risk of inbreeding resulting in a shrunken genetic pool and population bottlenecks. Unlike Serengeti and Kruger Parks, which boast of a substantial lion population with thousands of big cats, Gir is an extremely small and isolated ecosystem with a little over 400 lions.
Evidently, the 400 Gir lions are close relatives with similar genetic pool. So will the translocation also help in expanding their genetic pool? “The translocation is not to address the genetic problems of the Asiatic lions but to enhance their conservation status by mitigating risks that they may face,” says Ravi Chellam, director (research & conservation) at Madras Crocodile Bank Trust who is often cited as the brain behind the Gir lion translocation plan. (Times of India)
These Indian big cats lost most of their open jungle and grassland habitat in the country to rising human population which almost completely converted their entire habitat in the plains into farmland. They frequently became targets of local and British colonial hunters. Lions are still poisoned for attacking livestock. Some of the other major threats include floods, fires and epidemics. Their restricted range makes them especially vulnerable.
Nearly 15,000 to 20,000 open wells dug by farmers in the area for irrigation have also acted as traps, which led to many lions drowning. To counter the problem, suggestions for walls around the wells, as well as, the use of “Drilled Tube wells” have been made.
Farmers on the periphery of Gir Forest frequently use crude and illegal electrical fences by powering them with high voltage overhead power lines. These are usually intended to protect their crops from Nilgai but lions and other wildlife are also killed.
Habitat decline in the Gir may also be contributed by the presence of nomadic herdsmen known as Maldharis. They are vegetarian and do not indulge in poaching, but with an average of 50 cattle (mainly “Gir Cow”) per family, overgrazing is a concern. The habitat destruction by the cattle and the firewood requirements of the populace reduces the natural prey base and endangers the lions. The lions are in turn forced by the lack of natural prey shift to killing cattle and in turn, are targeted by people. Many Maldharis have been relocated outside the park by the forest department to allow the big cats a more natural surrounding and more natural prey.
Danger of Inbreeding
The present wild population is thought to have derived from just 13 individuals, and is considered to be highly inbred. Now it is believed that this low figure, quoted from 1907 census, may have been publicized to discourage hunting, which used to be a popular sport of Indian Royalty and the Britishers alike and resulted in the extermination of all other lions in India. Census data from the time indicates the population was probably closer to 100. Many studies have reported that the inbred populations could be susceptible to diseases due to a weakening immune system, possibly causing their sperm to be deformed, leading to infertility. In earlier studies Stephen J. O’Brien, a geneticist and chief of the Laboratory of Viral Carcinogenesis, National Cancer Institute in Maryland (US), had suggested that “If you do a DNA fingerprint, Asiatic lions actually would look like identical twins… because they descend from as few as a dozen individuals that was all left at the turn of the 20th century.” This makes them especially vulnerable to diseases and causes 70 to 80 per cent of sperm to be deformed — a ratio that can lead to infertility when lions are further inbred in captivity.
On another occasion O’Brien said, “A limited sample of Gir lion from Sakarbaugh zoo revealed high levels of spermatozoal abnormalities. These results affirm the hypothesis that genetic diminishment of natural population may have unfavourable physiological effect such as increased spermatozoal abnormalities.”
A subsequent study suggested that the low genetic variability may have been a feature of the original population and not a result of inbreeding in recent times. They also show that the variability in immunotypes is close to that of the tiger population and that there are no spermatazoal abnormalities in the current population of Asiatic Lions. The results of the study have been questioned due the use of RAPD techniques, which are unsuitable for population genetics research.
Genetic pollution of captive Asiatic lions with African lions
Until recently, captive Asiatic Lions in Indian zoos were haphazardly interbred with African Lions, which were confiscated from circuses leading to Genetic pollution in the captive Asiatic lion stock. Once discovered, this led to the complete shutdown of the European (EEP) and the American endangered species registered breeding programs (SSP) for Asiatic Lions, as the founder animals, the captive bred Asiatic lions, originally imported from India were ascertained to be an intraspecific hybrids of African and Asian lions. Since then, India has corrected its mistake and now breeds only pure native Asiatic Lions, and in turn has helped revive the European endangered species registered breeding program (EEP) for Asiatic Lions. However, the American SSP, which completely shutdown in the early 1980s has yet to receive pure bred Asiatic Lions from India, in order to form a new founder population for breeding in zoos on the American continent.
Opinions divided on interbreeding of Asiatic and African lions
However, opinion is divided among experts on interbreeding of Asiatic and African lions to increase the genetic pool. Luke Hunter, a globally acknowledged lion-translocation expert and also the president of Panthera, one of the world’s leading wild cat conservation organization, sees no practical difficulty in introducing African lions. Director of Lion Research Centre at the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences and a renowned ecologist Craig Packer also says that he “doesn’t see anything wrong with bringing ‘fresh-blood’ from Africa”, although he adds that “it might cause a real population explosion in Gir”. Ravi Chellam, director (research & conservation) at Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, on the other hand rules out interbreeding because of the supposed unfeasibility and low conservation value. “Conservation science expects us not to play God but to enhance the chances for nature to work its magic,” he says. (Times of India)
Asiatic Lion’s African connection
A study conducted in 1968 on the skulls of Asiatic, Barbary, extinct Cape, and other African lions revealed that the same characteristics – very narrow postorbital bar – existed in only the Asiatic and Barbary lion skulls. This indicates that there may have been a close relationship between the maned-cats from Northernmost Africa and Asia. It is also understood that the South European Lion, which became extinct in 80-100 AD, could have been the connecting link between the North African and Asiatic lions. It is supposed that Barbary lions possess the same abdominal fold (hidden under the manes) that is found in the Asian lions today.
Young lions establish huge kingdom in Gir forest
Three-and-a-half-year-old Asiatic lion Sandipan and his unnamed brother have established the largest kingdom in the Sasan Gir (Gujrat, India) spread over 100 sq km and it includes 32 big cats. Both these cats are young rulers who have captured the biggest pride in the sanctuary and both have been accepted as rulers, even by other adult males.
Experts who have been monitoring Gir for years say this is unusual. H S Singh, additional principal chief conservator of forest and an expert on lions, calls this a rare phenomenon. “Usually lions capture their own territories only after they are five years old. Establishing a territory at such a young age is only possible if the opponent is weak and the new king is brave enough to take risks,” Singh said.
Of the six groups present in the territory – spread over Dedakadi, Karambha, Paniya and Dedia villages – Sandipan and his brother have already mated with five females. Deputy conservator of forest Sandeep Kumar, who is monitoring the take-over in the tourism zone, said, “In my entire career, I have never come across an incident where lions this young have captured the territory and are being easily accepted by older big cats.”
In the last week of May (2012), the two brothers had established their supremacy over the biggest pride of the Gir forest and instead of pushing the old lion out, the duo stayed close to him until he died.
The last bastion, Paniya, which has presence of two adult lions, was conquered without any bloodshed. “We were expecting a fierce battle between these adults and the brothers. But, the take-over was very smooth with the two adults accepting the Sandipan’s supremacy,” said Kumar.